Long before Mortons or Spago, there was Chasen's-a Hollywood hangout so damn cool that when Humphrey Bogart got kicked out one night for being drunk, he begged on hands and knees to be let back in. For decades Chasen's wasn't just a restaurant: it was the restaurant. Ronald Reagan practically lived in Booth No. 2. When Shirley Temple whined for a grown-up drink, the bartender named a booze-free cocktail after her. Bob Hope once rode a horse through the front door. It's been ages since anybody but tourists and diehard old-timers bothered coming to this 58-year-old West Hollywood landmark. But now that it's scheduled to close on April 1, to make room for a mall, there's been a nostalgia panic over its demise. Because it's about to die, Chasen's is once again the hottest spot in town.
You can't buy a table. The three wood-paneled, red-boothed rooms are booked to the gills: 200 lunches a day, up to 400 dinners a night. And that's not including private parties. Miramax is throwing its Oscar-night rave here. Elton John's having a birthday bash hosted by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who lunched here recently with his DreamWorks SKG partner David Geffen. "It's madness," says Ronald Clint, who's been the manager at Chasen's for 40 years. "You could close Buckingham Palace and they wouldn't go through what we're going through." There is literally a feeding frenzy: Elizabeth Taylor is storing dozens of tubs of the famous Chasen's Chili. And everybody's rubbernecking. Gen-Xers in Doc Martens who wouldn't have been caught dead here a year ago crowd the bar. "I knew it was closing and I wanted to see a little bit of Hollywood history," actress-dancer Michele Spears, 30, said on a packed night last week. "I walked in the door and there was Nanette Fabray. You can't beat that!" Meanwhile, behind the heavy leaded glass of the Garden Room, California Gov. Pete Wilson, Nancy Reagan and friends said their own misty farewells.
Failed vaudevillian Dave Chasen opened his Southern Pit Barbecue 58 years ago in a cornfield on the edge of Beverly Hills. "It was just dirt in 1936," recalls Milton Berle, who attended opening night with his date, Lucille Ball. Frank Capra, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and James Cagney showed up that night, too. With six tables and an eight-stool counter, this humble dive was staked with $3,500 from New Yorker magazine founding editor Harold Ross, who thought Chasen was a better cook than comedian. Ross encouraged his pals James Thurber and Robert Benchley to make Chasen's their West Coast Algonquin Round Table. It grew fast, into a white colonial-style edifice with a green awning welcoming guests into an enclave of "I'm famous, you're not" exclusivity. The decor is an archive of Hollywood's golden age. There's an oil painting of W.C. Fields in drag as Queen Victoria, a four-foot-long model TWA Lockheed L-1011 donated by Howard Hughes. The staff is from central casting. Ancient waiters in worn black tuxes shuffle across the red carpet, and Pepe Ruiz, who has worked at Chasen's for 33 years, rules the horseshoe-shaped bar like a dictator. Regulars ask Ruiz, "What are you going to do when it closes?" He tells them, " golf and drink whiskey." Dave Chasen died in 1973. His widow, Maude, is in her 90s and too ill to visit, much less keep the old place alive.
The demolition of Chasen's is scheduled for the end of the year. If s a classic L.A. story: tear down paradise, put up a minimall. Developer Ira Smedra would love a mini-Chasen's in his mall, but the family hasn't agreed. Power restaurateur Wolfgang Puck has also showed interest in keeping the tradition alive. But the original Chasen's seems doomed to go the way of all the city's other defunct dining legends: the Brown Derby, Ciro's, Mocambo. "Chasen's will never be replaced," laments Steve Allen. "It's the end of an era." Yeah, it just won't be the same eating Chasen's Chili at Planet Hollywood.